Every so often, when I bring up maternity leave and discuss the U.S.’s miserly policies, someone poses a question that fills me with rage: ‘If the U.S. where to guarantee a longer and paid maternity leave to all women, wouldn’t that make employers more likely to discriminate when hiring? What employer would hire a woman, if he knew she had the right to take time off if she decided to have a baby?’ When I get asked this question I don’t get angry with the person asking, I get angry at our system for making women have to choose so often between career and family. I’m frustrated that the good of the company is given more importance than the good of mothers and their children; money is valued above all else. However, I felt like a shitty feminist when I realized that in all my indignation I had forgotten the other half of the population. I had been ignoring the importance of paternity leaves. Instead of rambling on about the terrible maternity leave policies in the U.S., I should have been calling the issue parental leave instead.
Everyone could benefit from improvements not only in maternity leave, but in paternity leave as well. Studies have shown that after returning from paternity leave, fathers are more involved in their child’s life. In addition, if people of all genders are offered the advantages of parental leave it could pave the way to a more equal work environment in which employers are less likely to discriminate by gender when hiring. Women would be offered benefits that would cost the company time, but so would men. Furthermore, with more equitable parental leave, women are more likely to return to work after taking time off. And why shouldn’t everyone be offered time to foster and care for a child? I’ve been vouching for gender equality, in part by calling out against poor maternity leave policies, and I hadn’t realized paternity leave policies are often far worse. Men are sometimes discouraged from taking any leave at all.
The idea didn’t come to me in the form of a divine revelation, and I didn’t conjure it up from hours of soul searching. I was reading about Sweden’s far better parental leave policies when I realized my nearsightedness. Sweden offers its residents 480 days of paid parental leave to couples (or single parents.) The couple is able to divide the time between each other as they please, except for 60 days that both are required to take in order to receive benefits. They are paid 80% of their wages during leave, plus a boost if they allocate their time equally.
Gender equality and equal parenthood is high in the Swedish public policy priority list. The first gender equal leave reform was realized in 1995, the second in 2002, and the third in 2008. Before 1995, the percentage of fathers taking paternity leave was just 6%. Today 85% of the men in Sweden take paternity leave. In the US only 12% of the men take paid leave when it is offered – and it’s not usually offered (numbers suggest that 85% percent men in the US take unpaid leave but 90% take only less than two weeks off). Visitors express a mix of confusion and joy when talking about their trips to Sweden, often referring to the ‘stroller dads’ as a reason for their delight. Interestingly, divorce rates have decreased and joint custody has increased. Perhaps this is because, in sharing roles that used to be traditionally bound, couples come to understand and respect each other’s daily lives more through equal parenting.
In the public sector in Sweden, women occupy more than half of the managing positions and make up 45% of the parliament. But while these numbers are encouraging, they don’t hold in the private sector. In 2011, women held 28% of management positions, and only 13% of executive management positions in listed companies. Sweden is a strong contender for the torch of gender equality, but there is still work to be done. Policies can only take us so far. Nevertheless, policies such as their parental leave have moved the country forward in gender equality. It has both opened up the labor force for women; for men, the household. Their success isn’t due to maternity leave improvements, but to the joint effects of maternity and paternity leave policies. I believe attention to both is important for the effects on gender equality to be observed. I do not presume to paint a full picture of the gender dynamics in Sweden as I have not lived their reality, but as an outside observer it seems that they are many steps ahead of the U.S. in such matters.
The United States can learn from Sweden’s example. I am not expecting the government to suddenly announce that we are adopting the Swedish policies. Our economies and societies are very different and it would be impossible to just jam a cog into our system without changing its shape to fit the system. Sweden relies more heavily on taxation, while many people in the U.S. are reluctant to increase government assistance in private lives. The corporate-minded U.S. won’t welcome the idea of people being able to take so much time off to rear a child. More accurately, corporate employers won’t accept the idea so warmly. Besides we don’t have the family support infrastructure that Sweden has which is another, albeit related, issue we need to work on. Nonetheless, I do think it is possible to adopt gender equal parental leave policies that would greatly enrich both fathers’ and mothers’ lives.
Building policies that are more concerned with maintaining a work-life balance, rather than with maintaining a career advancement obsession, can surely only lead to a healthier nation. It’s not so easy unfortunately, as there are people who believe that only women should take care of children because they are the experts; as if a mother automatically knows how to take care of a child the second it is born (warning: the website linked might make you want to punch your keyboard). Equally harmful is the misconception that father’s can’t take care of a child that accompanies this belief. There is no key component in the male brain that is missing that makes it impossible for them to understand the mechanics of diaper changing. These beliefs reinforce the gender binary and are based on no biological evidence. We also have to stop insisting on calling mothers who happen to work ‘working mothers’. I’ve heard this term used even for mothers of older children who no longer need any special attention from their parents. Using the term undermines the woman’s right to be both mother and worker, and forces her to choose between the two identities. I have never heard the term ‘working father’. Again, policy can ensure that people have the legal rights to paternal leave, but the gender gap in managing positions can only diminish if so many misconceptions are dealt with at an educational level.
By Maria Eugenia Orbay-Cerrato, Blog Editor
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